Thursday, March 27, 2014

Before Rerum Novarum, IV: Corrigan on the Rights of Property


In yesterday’s posting, we quoted from Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan’s 1886 pastoral that, in part, addressed certain issues raised by agrarian socialist Henry George during his bid for mayor of New York City that year.  Corrigan first laid out the basis of the Catholic Church’s position — what we saw yesterday — and then proceeded to explain how these applied to private property . . . which is today’s posting:

Starting from these premises, which no sane man can deny, we invite you to consider in their light the principles about the rights of property against which we deem it our solemn duty to give you some words of warning.

"All men are created equal"
First of all, you must understand in its true sense the statement that “all men are born equal.” It does not mean that one man may ever surpass others in power of mind, or strength of body, or beauty of form; since it is a well-established fact that no two men are exactly alike in all respects. All men are, indeed, equal in that they are all destined to the same ultimate end, have the same essence, endowed with the same faculties wherewith to attain that end. Each one has the faculties of sensation and understanding, for the purpose of animal and intellectual life. Each one has the grand endowment of free-will, with the power to raise both animal and intellectual life to the dignity of the moral order, by directing the whole being and his deeds toward his supreme end — which is God. This power and freedom in directing his actions towards their last end are the essential rights of man.

Now, just as by training, a man may bring the faculties of sense and understanding to higher stages of excellence, whilst in essence they remain the same, so, too, may a man, by care and industry, bring his moral faculties to a wider range and fuller development of power and activity, without their ceasing to be his rights. For right may be defined as “the moral faculty which each one has for what is his or what is due him.” And beyond all doubt every man has a perfect right to all the means necessary for him to reach his last end. Besides, as everything else in the world has for its end to subserve the uses of man, he is in consequence entitled to their use in pursuing his destiny. Wherefore, to prove that man has a right to any particular object in God’s universe, we need only prove that such object is necessary to him in relation to his last end, or even useful provided the rights of others are respected. This truth once established, the rest of mankind must acknowledge that right, and are bound in conscience to pay it the duty of respect. Hence, although it is hotly debated nowadays whether or not a man can have the right of property or ownership in land, you must not be led by abuses however flagrant, or by theories however specious, to run the risk of embracing falsehood for truth. Aim, first of all, at having a clear idea of what is meant by the right of property. It is, the, the moral faculty of claiming an object as one’s own, and of disposing both of the object and its utility according to one’s will without any rightful interference on the part of others. It is universally admitted that man has the right to the use of certain things, but that any man may acquire the right to possess a thing as his own, to the exclusion of others, is sometimes vehemently denied. And among the plausible reasons brought forward in support of this denial is the allegation that, all being equal, no man has a right to exclude others who have rights as strong as his; not from the free air of Heaven, not from the clear light of day, not (they add) from the earth and its farm lands.

"God made the earth for the use of all mankind."
Undoubtedly God made the earth for the use of all mankind; but whether the possession thereof was to be in common, or by individual ownership, was left for reason to determine. Such determination, judging from the facts of history, the sanction of law, from the teaching of the wisest and the actions of the best and bravest of mankind, has been, and is, that man can, by lawful acts, become possessed of the right of ownership in property, and not merely in its use. The reason is because a man is strictly entitled to that of which he is the producing cause, to the improvement he brings about in it, and the enjoyment of both. But it is clear that in a farm, for instance, which one has, by patient toil, improved in value; in a block of marble out of which one has chiseled a perfect statue, he cannot fully enjoy the improvement he has caused unless he have also the right to own the object thus improved. He has a strict right — and evil are the laws and systems which ignore it — either to ownership and enjoyment or to a full compensation for the improvement which is his. To strive to base an argument against ownership in land by reasoning on the universal distribution of air and light is only a freak of the imagination. Human industry cannot scatter a cloud from before the face of the sun, nor lift a fog that may be freighted with damaging vapors; we take the air and the light as God gives them, and we owe Him thanks for His bounty. It was only the earth which fell under the primal curse when man sinned, and only the earth, not the air or light which man’s industrial toil can coax back to something like its original fruitfulness. When he has done so, his just reward is to enjoy the results without hindrance from others. Even in such a necessary, abundant, and free commodity as water, if a man, by artificial means, congeals a portion of it into ice, is he not entitled to enjoy its exclusive ownership? Can he not demand for it with justice a compensation equivalent to his industry? Once deny the right of ownership and you sow the seed of stagnation in human enterprise. Who would burrow the earth to draw forth its buried treasures, if the very mine he was working were at the mercy of the passer-by whom its riches might attract? Who would watch with eagerness the season when to sow and to reap, and to gather the harvest which is the very fruit of his labors, if he is told that those who stand by the wayside idle are equally entitled to its enjoyment? True, indeed, in many painful instances the rights of the toiler are trampled on, and fruits of his labor snatched from his grasp. True, this is done too frequently with concurrence, or at least the connivance, of law. This is the evil that needs redress, but such redress can never be brought about by denying a fundamental right or by perpetrating a radical wrong. Seek rather for redress of such irksome grievances by the wise methods which the Church of Christ is forever teaching, though her voice may pass unheeded by the great ones of the earth.

We’ll continue with the relevant portions of Corrigan’s pastoral on Monday.  Tomorrow, of course, we have our weekly news items.

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